Third-grader Nevaeh Burgess rested her chin in her palm, her gaze fixed on the towering Bob Mitchell, a longtime community activist who visited her classroom Thursday to read about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The retired Fresno police sergeant’s booming voice commanded attention as he paged through “Martin’s Big Words,” a children’s book about King’s life and legacy.
“Martin said ‘Love’ when others said ‘Hate,’ ” Mitchell said. “Only what can drive out hate?”
“Love!” Nevaeh and her classmates called out.
Scenes like this played out in classrooms across Martin Luther King Elementary in southwest Fresno, where more than two dozen civic and government officials, grandparents and church leaders helped celebrate the birthday of the school’s namesake Thursday. Students here have been learning about the civil rights movement for the past week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr., Day, which will be observed Monday.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer and new Fresno County District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp joined leaders such as school board President Cal Johnson and pastors representing several Fresno congregations at the early morning event.
They fanned out across the school’s campus, each joining a classroom of youngsters to read “Martin’s Big Words” and then donate copies of the book to each class’s library.
Sixth-graders Evelyn Melendez and Alejandro Gutierrez, both 11, led Dyer from the library through the morning fog to their classroom on the corner of campus.
Dyer told the class that King “is somebody that I’ve looked up to in my life because of the message that he conveyed, and that message was one of peace, one of unity and one of equality.”
Before reading the book, he asked the students what they already knew about King’s message.
“About segregation and civil rights,” said one girl. “How he had a dream,” said one boy. “How he gave hope,” said another.
“Today we look in this classroom and we see people that are black and brown and white and Asian all sitting in the same classroom. That’s what God intended our life to be,” Dyer told them. “There was a time when that couldn’t happen. ... Quite frankly, it’s a shame.”
For Dyer, the day was a chance to speak with Fresno’s youngest generation about weighty issues like race and justice — and current events, like recent clashes between police and protesters in places like Ferguson, Missouri.
Mitchell said that when officials go into classrooms to share those messages, youngsters know people in their community care about them and their future.
“Giving of my time is the least I can do to encourage them to study hard and to become the very best they can and let them know there are people of our community who care very, very much about them,” he said.
Quiz: Test your Martin Luther King Jr. knowledge